Explainer

Ethiopia Faces a Famine Resurgence

As Ethiopians head to the polls, a dire humanitarian crisis is unfolding.

A displaced child from western Tigray waits to receive a plate of food in Mekele, Tigray.
A displaced child from western Tigray waits to receive a plate of food in Mekele, Tigray, on Feb. 24. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

Nearly four decades ago, a devastating famine ripped across Ethiopia, leaving an estimated 1 million people dead.

Now, the United Nations says the country is on the brink of another famine, which could potentially rival the scale of the catastrophe Ethiopia experienced in the 1980s—that is, if nothing is done. The crisis—which threatens at least 350,000 Ethiopians, if not millions more—would be the worst experienced in a single country in the past decade. It comes as a result of a seven-month civil war that has claimed the lives of thousands of people and forced the displacement of an estimated 2 million.

Nearly four decades ago, a devastating famine ripped across Ethiopia, leaving an estimated 1 million people dead.

Now, the United Nations says the country is on the brink of another famine, which could potentially rival the scale of the catastrophe Ethiopia experienced in the 1980s—that is, if nothing is done. The crisis—which threatens at least 350,000 Ethiopians, if not millions more—would be the worst experienced in a single country in the past decade. It comes as a result of a seven-month civil war that has claimed the lives of thousands of people and forced the displacement of an estimated 2 million.

“There is famine now in Tigray,” said Mark Lowcock, the top humanitarian official for the U.N., before later telling Reuters: “Food is definitely being used as a weapon of war.” A prolonged conflict could risk further destabilizing the region and plunging the country—and its neighbors—deeper into crisis.


How did we get to this point?

It’s complicated, to say the least. Humanitarian organizations have been warning of a brewing crisis in Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia, for months. War broke out in November 2020, although the conflict’s underlying roots extend far beyond that. On one side is the Ethiopian central government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and allied with neighboring Eritrea; on the other is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), once politically dominant, and the forces loyal to it.

Addis Ababa has deemed the TPLF a terrorist organization; in early November, Abiy launched a military offensive into the region after TPLF forces attacked a government military base. A low-level war is still grinding on.


So what’s going on now?

Aid organizations fear the worst, although the scale and scope of the crisis aren’t fully known. The limited information that exists is often disputed by different parties, and humanitarian organizations remain largely unable to access areas outside of major cities, according to UNICEF.

What we do know is that Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have reportedly blocked and even stolen incoming food aid while impeding access to medical aid convoys. According to The Associated Press, soldiers have also been accused of slaughtering livestock, preventing farmers from harvesting crops, and stealing farming equipment. As many as 140,000 children in Tigray are experiencing famine-like conditions; an estimated 33,000 of these children are critically malnourished and are at risk of death. At least nine aid workers have been killed in Tigray since the onset of the conflict.

These reports come amid months of allegations of ethnic cleansing and human rights atrocities, including mass killings and rape by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces—and all parties are suspected of committing war crimes. “It’s a catastrophic situation,” said Yohannes Woldemariam, who teaches international relations at the University of Colorado.

“Actions by warring parties have targeted civilians’ capacity to survive, their food systems, [and] their ability to safely move to receive assistance [and] protection,” said Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

And these dire impacts have only been compounded by lower-than-average rainfall, locust swarms, and the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which contributed to food crises amid the escalating violence. But not everybody is without.

“People may not have food, but they have AK-47s,” Yohannes said.


How has the international community responded?

The United Nations has urged complete access to Tigray, while the African Union also launched a commission to investigate human rights violations in the region. Washington also took a clear stance. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called for an immediate withdrawal of Eritrean and Ethiopian forces, and in March, U.S. President Joe Biden dispatched Sen. Chris Coons to address the deteriorating situation with Abiy. In May, the Biden administration also imposed visa restrictions against Ethiopian and Eritrean officials suspected to be responsible for atrocities in the conflict.

“We cannot make the same mistake twice,” declared Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, while referring to the famine Ethiopia experienced in the 1980s. “We cannot let Ethiopia starve. We have to act now.”

But Washington’s approach so far has been “more symbolic than anything else,” said Yohannes, who noted that the actions taken have not met the severity of the situation.

“The EU and the United States are the ones who have been trying hardest to put pressure on the Ethiopian government,” said Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, in reference to the G-7 summit. “And when push comes to shove, and they sat down together, the statement that came out was not a strong one.”


What does this mean for the region?

When the conflict in Tigray escalated in December, more than 50,000 Ethiopian refugees fled to neighboring Sudan. An estimated 2 million people have been displaced as a result of the crisis. As the situation continues to deteriorate, experts fear that the global ramifications will be even more severe—especially with Ethiopia being the second-most populous country in Africa—and could risk destabilizing the region even further.

“It’s going to be much more catastrophic and much more intense because Ethiopia is a very populous country,” Yohannes said. “It will spill over into countries in the region. It’s not going to be contained in one country.”


So what’s next?

Ethiopians headed to the polls for its twice-postponed national elections on Monday, June 21, although the election has been marred by controversy. Around one-fifth of polling stations remained closed on election day, popular opposition leaders have boycotted the election over claims of intimidation, and as a result of the ongoing crisis, millions of Ethiopians were unable to participate in the vote. Abiy, the expected winner of the election, has also rejected Washington’s calls for a unilateral cease-fire.

But as long as political disputes continue, they risk prolonging the crisis and hurting Tigrayans—and further fracturing an already fragile country.

“There is not any room for a conversation. There is not any room for a cease-fire. There is not any room for any negotiation that’s going on, and people are talking over each other’s heads,” Yohannes said. “It’s really difficult to see any glimmer of hope.”

Christina Lu is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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